Kiper: Notre Dame debate continues

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Mel Kiper Archive

Tuesday, March 8

Sooners seek 1st win over CU since '88

NEWS & NOTES: Oct. 30

Editor's Note: Come along for the ride as Mel Kiper Jr. previews these key weekend games: Colorado-Oklahoma, Notre Dame-Boston College, Minnesota-Ohio State, Auburn-Ole Miss and Arizona State-Washington State.

COLORADO-OKLAHOMA
The undefeated Sooners (7-0, 4-0 Big 12 South) and the Buffaloes haven't met since 1999, and Oklahoma hasn't beaten Colorado since 1988 -- a 17-14 victory at Boulder.

One of the keys to Colorado RB Chris Brown's success this season has been the exceptional play of the right side of the O-line.
The Buffs (6-2, 4-0 Big 12 North) are gradually working back to full strength for their visit to Oklahoma. Junior LB Sean Tufts, who missed the past three games due to a high ankle sprain, returns to the starting lineup this week. However, junior TE Quinn Sypniewski is listed as day-to-day after suffering a concussion against Texas Tech. If he's unable to go, senior Beau Williams would start in his place.

One of the keys to Colorado junior RB Chris Brown's success this season has been the exceptional play of the right side of the O-line. Last year it was the left side, keyed by Andre Gurode and Victor Rogers, that set the tone. But in 2002, senior center Wayne Lucier, juior OG Marwan Hoge and senior LT Justin Bates have paved the way up front.

Defensively, the major headliner for the Buffs has been underrated fifth-year senior DT Tyler Brayton. The 6-5, 270-pounder has the quickness, strength, technique, wingspan and sustained intensity level to wreak havoc on a down-to-down basis. Brayton has recorded five sacks, 11 hurries, three forced fumbles, four pass breakups and 41 tackles (33 solo, nine behind the line of scrimmage, nine third-down stops).

With production like that, you have to believe that Brayton is in the Outland Trophy mix. He's also fast becoming a high-profile NFL prospect, with his performance on the field this season equal to that of a first-round draft choice.

NOTRE DAME-BOSTON COLLEGE
Even though history would lead you to believe this could be a dangerous home game for the undefeated Fighting Irish (8-0), keep in mind that this isn't the same Boston College squad coach Tom O'Brien and his staff envisioned when the season kicked off.

Injuries have created a problem for the Eagles (4-3), particularly on defense, where three key starters have been lost for the season (senior DE Antonio Garay, junior DT Doug Goodwin and sophomore CB Peter Shean). Minus a pair of destructive warriors up front and arguably their top CB, the burden for keeping the BC defense competitive has shifted to LBs Josh Ott and Vinny Ciurciu and SS Doug Bessette.

Offensively, senior QB Brian St. Pierre must have a career game and display a measure of consistency, which has been lacking thus far. Although he has completed 60.4 percent of his aerials, St. Pierre has tossed nine interceptions.

On the plus side, the Eagles' offensive line has held up quite well for the most part, doing a particularly good job clearing the way for junior RB Derrick Knight. The determined 5-9, 205-pounder is averaging 105 yards rushing per game and an impressive 5.5 yards per carry.

Against a Notre Dame front seven that held Florida State's Greg Jones in check last week, limiting him to just 34 yards, it will be interesting to see if the Eagles have any success with Knight running the ball. Remember, Notre Dame has limited opposing RBs to an average of just 2.5 yards per carry and is ranked seventh in the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 81.8 rushing yards per game.

Besides being stout against the run, Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer's opportunistic stop troop has created a plus-12 turnover margin (second in the nation).

Senior CB Shane Walton (six interceptions) is the primary difference-maker, while senior LB Courtney Watson has recorded 10 more tackles than any other Irish defender even though he sat out the first two games due to a viral infection.

Senior safeties Glenn Earl and Gerome Sapp have also been solid performers, ranking right behind Watson on the tackle chart. Another senior, DT Cedric Hilliard, has stepped up his performance level, ranking as one of the most improved Irish players. After suffering a sprained knee against Florida State last week, Hilliard is listed as day-to-day heading into the Boston College game Saturday.

When Hilliard was sidelined, Baer shifted junior Kyle Budinscak inside and inserted sophomore Justin Tuck at DE while giving junior Greg Pauly some action at DT.

Overall, one of the key reasons why the Irish have been able to shock the college football world so far this season has been their good fortune on the injury front. Outside of QB Carlyle Holiday missing one game and the Watson sitting out the two games early, coach Tyrone Willingham's squad has been basically at full strength the entire way.

And when Holiday and Watson were sidelined, sophomore QB Pat Dillingham and sophomore LB Brandon Hoyte stepped in and did a commendable job.

MINNESOTA-OHIO STATE
In the next four weeks, coach Glen Mason's Golden Gophers will have the chance to prove they are worthy of being regarded as one of college football's surprise teams. Currently, the skeptics will argue that Minnesota (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) is no more than a paper tiger, benefiting from a schedule that has been far from demanding -- up until this point.

Excluding Division I-AA Southwest Texas State, the record of the Golden Gophers' other seven opponents is just 19-40.

Now, though, things change dramatically in terms of the level of opposition. Following their trip to Ohio State on Saturday, the Golden Gophers host Michigan and Iowa before closing out the regular season at Wisconsin. The 29-6 combined record of the four teams remaining on Minnesota's schedule is in stark contrast to the caliber of competition until now.

On the injury front, the Golden Gophers benefited from a week off, which allowed blue-chip senior CB Mike Lehan to work his way back to 100 percent. One of the better cover men in the nation, Lehan missed the Northwestern and Michigan State games with a deep thigh bruise.

While talented junior TE Ben Utecht (6-6, 250) has suited up each week, he has been hampered by a foot injury and really hasn't been at full strength since the Purdue game in late September.

As for the highly ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (9-0, 4-0 Big Ten) -- who are looking to maintain their national-championship hopes -- coach Jim Tressel's talent-laden squad has plenty of star power on both sides of the ball.

Underrated junior QB Craig Krenzel just keeps on winning (10-1 as a starter). He's doing a great job managing the Buckeye offense (completing 62.7 percent of his passes, with nine TD passes and four interceptions). An unsung standout on the offensive line has been junior Alex Stepanovich, one of the elite centers in college football.

Highly skilled, versatile sophomore Chris Gamble has filled a critical need area at CB of late, in addition to hauling in 30 receptions for a 16-yard average from his WR position.

The Buckeyes also welcome back LB Cie Grant from the injury list and hope to have freshman sensation RB Maurice Clarett in the starting lineup as well. Grant is working his way back from an ankle injury sustained against Wisconsin two weeks ago. Clarett has been hampered by a shoulder injury that also occurred versus Wisconsin.

In addition, there's a chance that junior OT Shane Olivea (recovering from an appendectomy) could return to action against the Golden Gophers. Last week, Ivan Douglas shifted to RT to fill in for Olivea, with talented freshman Rob Sims taking over on the left side.

AUBURN-OLE MISS
After a one-sided home loss to Arkansas, when Auburn was physically manhandled in the trenches, followed by an overtime setback against Florida at The Swamp, coach Tommy Tuberville's Tigers faced a crossroads game last week at Jordan-Hare Stadium against favored LSU.

The Tigers (5-3, 3-2 SEC West) rose to the challenge with a season-saving 31-7 victory over the Bayou Bengals -- and they did it minus star RB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who is out for the year with a broken fibula in his left leg.

Sophomore RB Ronnie Brown provided a huge boost once again. A 6-1, 225-pounder, Brown followed up his 163-yard effort against Florida with another solid performance, rushing for 95 yards and scoring two TDs against LSU. Brown is averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

Auburn's defense revolves around MLB Mark Brown, along with OLBs Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas. Brown leads the team in tackles, Thomas has been a standout since early in his college career and Dansby is a big-play performer (three interceptions, two forced fumbles).

This week, the challenge will be to contain the passing exploits of high-profile Rebels junior QB Eli Manning. Manning had another outstanding game Saturday in the Rebels' loss to Arkansas. He completed 42 of 56 aerials for 414 yards and two TDs. It was the second-highest single-game passing mark at Ole Miss since 1969, when Archie Manning (Eli's dad) threw for 436 yards against Alabama.

The problem last week was turnovers, which led to 24 of Arkansas' 48 points. This season, though, the lack of a running game has put all the pressure on Manning to direct a one-dimensional Rebel attack. Entering the Auburn game this Saturday (at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford), the Rebels are ranked dead last in the SEC in rushing, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.

This week, the Rebels (5-3, 2-2 SEC West) hope to have senior RB Robert Williams back. Bothered by ankle and shoulder injuries of late, Williams was forced to sit out the Arkansas game.

By the way, when projecting ahead to next season, the primary running threat for the Rebels and the key newcomer in the SEC figures to be physically talented 6-2, 230-pounder Jamal Pittman. He's red-shirting this season after rushing for 3,117 yards and scoring 36 TDs during his senior campaign at the prep level in 2001. Pittman was named Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year in Mississippi.

ARIZONA STATE-WASHINGTON STATE
In a critical Pac-10 showdown, the Sun Devils (7-2, 4-0 Pac-10) take their aerial circus -- featuring sophomore QB Andrew Walter and a host of quality receivers -- to Pullman, where ASU has come away with victories in their past two meetings at Martin Stadium (1998 and 2000).

While Dirk Koetter's Sun Devils will pass often, look for improvement from a running game that has been hampered by injuries. Tailbacks Mike Williams, Hakim Hill and Cornell Canidate and FB Mike Karney all have been less than 100 percent lately. Reportedly, all four are back at full strength for this week's game against Washington State (7-1, 4-0 Pac-10).

The Sun Devils are seventh in the Pac-10 in rushing offense, averaging just 111.2 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry.

Defensively, ASU junior sack artist Terrell Suggs has been virtually unblockable, but he'll have a tougher time getting after resourceful Cougar QB Jason Gesser. He's mobile and a quick decision-maker, key reasons why the Cougars have allowed the fewest sacks (13) in the Pac-10.

On the injury front for the Cougars, they'll be without WRs Collin Henderson (collarbone) and Scott Lunde for the rest of the regular season. Both were injured last week against Arizona. Henderson's versatility will definitely be missed. In addition to hauling in 19 receptions, he's in the punt-return mix and was the holder for PATs and FGs. The solid Lunde had 28 receptions for a 12.4-yard average and one TD.

But the Cougars are well-fortified, with proven big-time talent at WR (Mike Bush, Devard Darling and Jerome Riley). They'll also receive a boost now that former juco transfer Sammy Moore is back at full strength from a hamstring injury.

Even though the Sun Devils have been on a roll of late, it's important to note that they haven't yet been able to play an "A" game on both sides of the ball in any one contest. They'll more than likely have to do so at some point during the three-game stretch that awaits (at Washington State, Cal, at USC).

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