Game Preview: Tulsa

Floyd's return is essential to a potential Irish W

Our detailed game preview and final prediction for Saturday's contest vs. the Golden Hurricane.

Tulsa Offense vs. ND Defense

Three current Golden Hurricane players have amassed at least *20 career touchdowns...\eight skill possession players have scored multiple touchdowns and head coach Todd Graham's squad boasts 12 different TD contributors overall through seven games.

The Conference USA foe features a quarterback that's thrown for more than 4,500 career yards and nearly 40 touchdowns. He's thrown for 300 yards while rumbling for another 100 on the ground…in the same game.

Tulsa can score, producing 38.43 points and more than 490 yards per contest to date. The Golden Hurricane put up 49, 33, 28, 41, 48, 18, and 52 points heading into Saturday. The Irish defense has yielded four or more offensive touchdowns in half its games over the same span.

Golden Hurricane QB G.J. Kinne excels at a skill which Irish head coach Brian Kelly covets: the ability to extend plays. Kinne can burn a defense outside the pocket with throws downfield or by tucking and running for chunks of yardage.

"The quarterback, you'd love to have on your team," said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco of Kinne. "He's gritty, tough, very strong arm…he throws the ball 60-70 yards on the move; just flicks it, not much air (under the ball) so he can make all the throws and he's a good agile player."

Kinne has yet to throw for fewer than 200 yards in a game this season; the Golden Hurricane have rushed for 180 or more in six of seven contests. Their 18 rushing and 15 passing touchdowns illustrates the team's impressive offensive balance, as fewer than 30 snaps separate Tulsa's run/pass ratio (considering multiple kneel down efforts are ruled rushing plays, the difference unofficially decreases).

"Tulsa (features) 3 to 4, or 5 to 6 wide receivers that are constantly rotating in the game; they can all run over the top of you," Diaco continued. "They do some fun, innovative things on offense. I would think playing in the offense would be fun. Running screens and freeze (plays), and tricks, and reverses and reverse-passes. It's a real exciting and energized attacking offense."

Described as a mis-direction, read-option spread offense by Brian Kelly earlier this week, the Golden Hurricane feature six players with more than 100 rushing yards and nine with more than 100 receiving yards. If you're looking for an early key to the contest, Tulsa generally uses its rushing attack to set up the aerial assault.

"I'd say that the runs set up the windows that they'd like to try and hit, absolutely," Diaco added."

Diaco's defense will fair better schematically this week after its keystone cops routine vs. the Naval Academy seven days prior, but the Golden Hurricane can strike from all over the field and with a host of weapons.

Stat to note: Tulsa has converted better than 51 percent on 3rd Down this season and is 5 of 7 on its 4th Down conversion tries. Notre Dame's 3rd Down defense ranks 38th nationally, limiting opponents to a 36.22 percent conversion rate despite two extraordinarily poor 3rd Down performances this season (Stanford converted 11 of 16; Navy 10 of 13 3rd Down opportunities).

Advantage: Heavily in favor of the visitors. (For a breakdown of Tulsa's key skill position players, click here.

*Accomplishment of note: Only one roster in Notre Dame's storied history – the 2006 Irish with Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, and Darius Walker – could boast three active players with 20+ touchdowns scored as does this Tulsa offensive attack.)

ND Offense vs. Tulsa Defense

120th out of 120 FBS teams in passing yards allowed; 81st in points allowed and in excess of 28 per contest…the Tulsa pass defense has been a cure-all for ailing opponents over the last two seasons, regularly yielding more than 250 yards and bottoming out this season with an shocking 330-yard average against entering Saturday.

The Irish attack will again be without the services of tight end Kyle Rudolph and slot receiver Theo Riddick, but ND does expect junior star target Michael Floyd to return to lead an otherwise unspectacular receiving corps.

Floyd's presence will allow up-and-coming freshman T.J. Jones to play a subordinate rather than lead role – a trickle-down effect that would benefit not only Jones in his new slot position, but redshirt-freshman tight end Tyler Eifert and the unit's final field presence: either John Goodman or Duval Kamara.

Tulsa ranks 20th nationally vs. the run, but that number is skewed due to its opponents nearly guaranteed success via the forward pass. In addition to FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) foe Central Arkansas, Golden Hurricane opponents currently rank 93, 120, 34, 113, 71, and 100th nationally in rush offense. The 34th ranked rush offense in that set, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, piled up a staggering 722 total yards vs. Tulsa on September 18…you can assume the 148 gained on the ground that day were incidental.

If Notre Dame can't consistently move the ball vs. Tulsa, either through the air or with what currently masquerades as a collegiate ground game in the form or read-option runs by Armando Allen and Cierre Wood, the Irish may not threaten the left side of the W/L ledger again this season.

Advantage: Notre Dame, even without Floyd. The expected return of Notre Dame's best football player would nearly guarantee a 30-spot for Kelly's offense on the Stadium scoreboards Saturday afternoon. Tulsa's defensive backfield is a train wreck.

Special Teams

Ultimate strength – Tulsa's No. 1 ranked kick-off coverage unit – vs. the Notre Dame fans' chief lament – a seemingly disinterested, tentative kick return group, one head coach Brian Kelly boasted would be "dynamic" at the season's outset.

Notre Dame hasn't been dynamic in the kick return game since 2002; its intermittent success this decade in the punt return game gone since Tom Zbikowski's breakout season of '05.

Tulsa, conversely, possesses the nation's returning all-purpose yardage leader in Damaris Johnson. The 5'8" speedster needs just 80 yards to break the Conference USA's career kick return yardage mark.

The Irish coverage units have provided a boost where their return team brethren have thus far failed, ranking 11th nationally covering kick-offs and No. 1 with a bullet running under punts, allowing under a half-yard per punt return through eight games.

Johnson will provide a true test Saturday as a veteran, explosive, and dedicated return threat.

Notre Dame boasts one of the nation's best kickers in walk-on senior David Ruffer. The former William & Mary transfer is 18 for 18 in his college career; 13 for 13 this season, and thus one field goal shy of tying sophomore teammate Nick Tausch's program record of 14 consecutive successful attempts in the same season. (Ruffer already holds the program record for consecutive field goals made at 18 and counting).

Tulsa place-kicker Kevin Fitzpatrick has connected on 11 of 16 attempts this season and 25 of 31 over a 27-game career. Four of his five misses this season have occurred from a distance of 46 yards or greater.

There won't be many points left on the field Saturday when Ruffer and Fitzpatrick trot out to complete their respective formalities.

Advantage: Tulsa – Damaris Johnson is a difference-maker and Notre Dame's collective kick and punt returners have yet to make a difference.

Final Thoughts

In May, I referred to Saturday's upcoming matchup with Tulsa the season's ultimate trap game – one that would likely include a subdued Notre Dame crowd seemingly in need of a reason to cheer vs. an opponent 95 percent of the fan base had never watched play a football game.

Last Saturday's thorough beating at the hands of the Naval Academy brought the program's 2010 approval rating to a new low. The "trap" remained; the atmosphere surrounding is week's contest worsened the moment the final gun sounded in East Rutherford.

Following Wednesday's tragic death of Notre Dame junior and team student manager Declan Sullivan, the game day ambience changed considerably. The game's outcome is less important to both those involved and observing, but while Notre Dame will play in honor of its friend and classmate, those feelings will eventually be put aside following the first hit, tackle, and touchdown.

Sullivan's memory will be cherished by those that knew him as well as those of us that knew of him, regardless of Saturday's outcome. The two teams and coaching staffs will, eventually, simply be embroiled in a football game tomorrow afternoon.

And Notre Dame isn't ready.

Tulsa 30 Notre Dame 28

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