Mike Tirico talks ND-MSU, his move to NBC, and one crazy summer

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Mike Tirico is a busy man. And in the middle of one of the craziest 11-week stretches you’ll ever see, he was kind enough to talk shop with me for the Inside the Irish blog.

As he bounced between East Lansing and South Bend, and still made it to his son’s soccer game in-between, he was kind enough to chat about his move to NBC, his return to college football, his first time at a Notre Dame football game, and the upcoming Ryder Cup.

Hope you all enjoy.

 

You’ve had quite a summer. Going between the British Open to the Olympics to ND Football. How are you holding up?

It’s been great. And the pace of it all has helped with the workload for sure. It’s an 11-week stretch with the Open Championship golf, hosting the Ryder Cup, three Notre Dame games, two NFL preseason games, getting started on Football Night in America three Sundays in a row, and then, of course, 17 days at the Olympics, including the closing ceremony. Throw that all in the hopper and it’s been a lot of travel and a lot of good TV the last 11 weeks on my end.

I think by this point, most people will start to associate me with NBC as I’ve been on a decent amount of time these last 11 weeks.

 

Has that been helpful, considering your footprint at ESPN? Was that a big part of the decision to come to NBC? 

The Olympics were right up there, along with being a part of Super Bowl coverage in the years that we have it. Those were big pieces of me coming to NBC, the most attractive things. But all these other events have been phenomenal. The NBC golf team with Dan (Hicks) and Johnny (Miller) and Tommy Roy leading that group, they’re as good as there is in the sport and to be welcomed by them and be a part of their big events is huge.

And this Notre Dame package has turned into a great opportunity for me to revisit my college football roots. I’ve stayed involved in the sport each year at ESPN but to get back and be on campus and to do three games in a row at one of the cathedrals of the sport in South Bend, it’s just been phenomenal on my end.

 

What’s been your experience with Notre Dame Football? Have you called a game here? Been to a game as a fan?

I have never been to Notre Dame, it’s was my first time there. Quite simply, NBC has had the Notre Dame contract for the last 25 years, this is the 26th, and I’ve worked at ESPN the last 25 years. So a home game in South Bend wasn’t in the cards for any of us who called games. So I never had a chance to go to a game there.

I was thrilled to tour the campus, soak up some of the vibe and call a game from that stadium. It’s a bucket list thing for any of us who broadcast college football, to call a game in South Bend, and I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I can do that now. And I’m absolutely looking forward to a primetime game there, with a great rival in Michigan State and the 50-year anniversary of one of the legendary games in the history of the sport.

Both teams are ranked and it’s an important game for both. You couldn’t ask for anything more in terms of an environment to celebrate and enjoy college football.

 

So what were your first impressions?

I drove to campus on Wednesday night, spent Thursday 3 or 4 hours just touring the campus and walking around and getting a sense of the place. I think if you’re doing a home game for three weeks there, it’s good to have a sense of what makes it special. I had been there before for basketball games, but the football experience is different and I never really had a chance to see the campus. So to be able to soak all of it up was great.

It’s one of the great campuses in America in terms of where the students live, where they go to school, the religion roots of the campus, the meaningful places on the campus, all of those things are part of the fabric.

And then when you get to sports — most of the great venues in sports are gone. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field. Madison Square Garden, although it’s been redone several times. Those are really it, except for college venues.

And in college football, in terms of venues, there are very few where you can say all these great players — Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, first-round picks, NFL guys — played here. And because of Notre Dame’s legacy and the school’s they’ve played over the years — like Michigan, USC, Michigan State and Army and Navy — you’ve got a lot of the great players in college football played in that stadium. So you have that plus the winningest school in college football in terms of winning percentage.

The prior Saturday, I went to a Michigan home game, the night before that I went to Syracuse. So in a nine-day stretch I got to go to my alma mater to watch a game, to Michigan, home of the biggest crowd and the program with the most wins, and then the next Saturday go to the place and school that’s No. 1 in terms of all-time winning percentage, at Notre Dame. To experience college football in those places in a week, as a fan, a true fan of the sport, it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

So let’s talk about Michigan. It’s somewhere you’ve been around, living in Ann Arbor. And it’s a place that’s always interesting to Notre Dame, especially with Jim Harbaugh there. What do you make of Harbaugh? What’s the best thing about him coming to Michigan? And do you think he’ll eventually change?

Within the framework of tradition, he has brought new, he’s brought innovative, he’s brought energy, he’s brought edge. And it’s all working because there are results on the field to back it up. I think they’ve lost two games in the first 14 or 15 as a coach.

The guy is getting results. He got results in San Francisco with the 49ers and he gets results here. At the end of the day that’s what gives you the runway to do what you want to do and put your spin on the program.

I think it’s great for college football. I think it’s great that Michigan State has just been awesome the last three years. When you look at the circle around the Great Lakes, those of us who live up here love football. We love football. For 51 years in the NFL, the Vikings, the Packers, the Lions and the Bears have all been in the same division. Those four teams all around the Great Lakes, they’ve all been within the same division. So they have a great rivalry.

Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame. Four great schools in terms of history and legacy — we’re talking Heismans, national championships, we’re talking over 500 wins, the winningest programs in the sport — when they’re all good, it’s great. So when we see Notre Dame intersect with Ohio State or Michigan State or Michigan when they come back onto the schedule, it’s great for the sport and those are the games that inspire the kids who live up this way to play ball. And that just feeds to future generation.

So it’s a long-winded answer, but Michigan getting good again is great for the sport because in a couple of years when they meet again, if Michigan and Notre Dame are really good, then the football fans will get a great Saturday and a great weekend. That’s all they want.

 

You’re probably one of the only people who has actually watched the entire Michigan State-Furman game. What do you expect to see from the Spartans this weekend? 

I don’t think we know. And I don’t think they know just yet. I think they’ll have a much better answer come Sunday morning.

Here’s what we know: They are in the mold of the Dantonio teams that have turned this thing around to where they’ve finished in the top five or six here for the last three years in a row. They’re physical, they’re well coached, and they run a great program.

We just spent the day there. You’d want to send your kid to Mark Dantonio to play football. He is a task master. He’s hard on the guys, but they love him. And that’s when you know that the guy is really good. And he is.

We don’t know how Tyler O’Connor, the quarterback, is going to play for a whole year. We know he won his first road start at Ohio State. I told Tyler today that if you win at Notre Dame you should walk right out that tunnel and end your career. If you start two road games and it’s a win at Ohio State and a win at Notre Dame, you’ve done it all.

It’s probably not going to be too big for him. He’s a fifth-year senior, he’s only got one year to play but it’s really great the leadership role that he now has. They can run the ball, they’ve got a good offensive line, and running backs. On the defensive side of the ball they’ve got guys who can make some plays, a very good linebacking corps. So even though the names have changed, there’s still the blueprint for what has made them very good.

We don’t know, and candidly they don’t know, if their best players are good enough to be a top five team or not. I think we’ll start getting those answers this week and then they still play Michigan and Ohio State, among others. There’s plenty of runway to find out how good the Spartans are this year. I think they’re a really good team and they’ll play a physical game as they always do.

 

What’s your experience with Brian Kelly?

I’ve been around Brian at Cincinnati and maybe at Central, too. I was trying to piece that together and I think I might have done a MAC game when he coached at Central. Certainly at Cincinnati a few times and our paths would cross at a couple of other events during the year, and then when he coached Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama, I called that game for ESPN Radio. So I spent time around Brian in the lead up to that as well.

I know him a little bit, but not very well. But certainly know him and know why his style of football has helped Notre Dame return to being one of the college football’s most watched teams.

 

How do you think he handled the quarterback situation? Do you think he regrets playing two guys before deciding on DeShone Kizer, who is quickly ascending as one of the premier guys in the country?

I don’t think there are any regrets at all. I thought he handled it really well. When you’re in a situation with two quarterbacks, it’s always very delicate. And I think this one is made more delicate because Malik is coming off of an injury. And you don’t want to see a guy lose his starting spot because he got injured. So they tried to figure out how to manage that. And by giving them both an opportunity to play, DeShone Kizer was clearly the better quarterback in that game and he proved to be a better thrower.

So in this day and age with the way the offense is spread, that’s probably the best place to go for your No. 1 quarterback. And DeShone proved that on the field. I thought Brian handled it very well. I thought he approached it the right way and things sorted out over time. So it all works.

I will say this: Malik was terrific in terms of trying to accept the role and we saw him last week as we left practice and Malik was staying to throw extra footballs. He knows that he’s just a play away, that’s how he lost the job. And I give that man a lot of credit for embracing what the role is for the moment. That showed me that he can handle it well.

 

You’ll leave Notre Dame and then head out to host the Ryder Cup. What makes you so excited about the event?

When Al Michaels left ABC and the Disney family to go to NBC, part of the trade to allow Al out of his deal was Oswald the Rabbit, some extended rights to Olympic highlights I believe, and ESPN got the first day of the Ryder Cup. So in ‘08 in Louisville at Valhalla and in 2010 in Wales and in 2012 at Medina, I got to do the Friday at the Ryder Cup, and the ‘08 day at Valhalla is still one of my favorite and will remain one of my favorite days ever at work.

The two captains were Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, who a few years before that in the run up to it were both my partners in the 18th tower. So two guys who I sat alongside for three years in the booth are now out there as the captains of the Ryder Cup.

It was such a cool event, the atmosphere in Louisville was incredible that day. We were on the air from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and you didn’t think once that you were tired. It was a great day and I love the Ryder Cup. I think it’s special because you never talk about salaries, you’re talking about guys who are playing for continent or country, and every shot really matters.

People may watch Thursday and Friday at a major, but you know most of the guys are kind of jockeying around to get in contention for the last nine on Sunday, but here your second shot on the second hole on Friday could be the difference in the match. And the point could be the difference in retaining, winning or losing the cup.

I love it, I cannot wait to get there on Wednesday, and to be around it and then host the coverage while the guys call it on Friday and Saturday.

 

So who do you put as the U.S. Team’s fourth captain’s pick?

Davis has enough guys in his ears, but Bubba is still out there, right? I’ve got a guy with two majors who represented the United States of America when other guys were saying no thanks about the Olympics. But not only did he represent us by going, but he represented us by how he comported himself there. Bubba wasn’t having a good first nine holes on Thursday’s first round and he’s walking off the green and opening up his bag and giving Olympic pins and golf pins to kids who were watching.

Bubba sat one row behind me on the night that Michael Phelps won two gold medals. And with 50 meters to go, Phelps flips to turn to beat Chad le Clos, who was talking trash beforehand, and Bubba is up right behind me screaming, “Come on, Phelps! Come on, Michael!” He’s rooting like a fan.

A guy who when many people in the golf world turned their backs on the Olympics, Bubba embraced it and represented the country. He’s a damn good golfer. He’s won the Masters twice. I take him on my side anytime. If there’s a pick and he’s still out there, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)