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?
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.
Georgia, meanwhile, got to Wimbush three times, including two strip sacks. Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs shut down any Irish running game, as well.
Georgia’s defensive line is also much better than the Owls or Eagles fronts. It is, in fact, one of the best in the country.
Michigan State’s front seven lands between the two ends of the spectrum, closer to the high end. How the Irish manage against them will give a much better idea of what to expect from that offensive line against strong fronts like USC’s and Stanford’s. It will also indicate if Mike McGlinchey & Co. have a chance at holding their own against North Carolina State and Miami.
Speaking of the offensive line, measuring its effectiveness may be best determined in the red zone.
Notre Dame has scored 13 touchdowns on 15 trips to the red zone. All but two of those tallies have come on the ground. That is not an accident.
“We’ve been run-first down there, which was a commitment that we were going to make, and that has helped us [in the red zone],” Kelly said Sunday. “More than anything else, with the rushing game down there, we’ve been able to really draw defenses into being pretty clear on what their intent is, and so it’s helped us in our play calling.
“Maybe by our — maybe the right word would be insistence, persistence — wanting to run the football down there, we’ve taken away a lot of the exotic looks that we’ve gotten in the past down there and have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to get.”
In other words, once near the end zone, the Irish are able to tell the offensive line to just find a body or two to block, and then the backs are able to gain the needed few yards. This space has argued there is no better metric for grading an offense’s performance than its ability to gain one yard when it needs to.
Doing so against a stout, but not elite, Spartans defense would establish a floor for the Notre Dame offense moving forward.
Falling short on two red zone possessions against Georgia set the ceiling, at least for the short-term.
How good is Michigan State?
That question may be applicable to the Irish, as well, but it is very much a wondering with the Spartans. They have beaten Bowling Green and Western Michigan, both at home. That kind of scheduling will lead to almost any Power Five team being high up in many statistical categories, let alone undefeated.
Is Michigan State back to typical form under head coach Mark Dantonio, or are the remnants of last year’s 3-9 performance still plaguing its foundation? That tag may not make the best hype video for Fox when advertising the 8 p.m. ET kickoff, but it would be rather accurate.
How will Wimbush react to an adversarial road environment?
No disrespect to Boston College, but the atmosphere at Alumni Stadium often makes Notre Dame Stadium sound like a punk rock concert in East Village’s Webster Hall, or what used to be Webster Hall.
Spartan Stadium will be more intimidating than that, providing the first real road test of Wimbush’s career.
“We’ll do our best to turn up the intensity here in practice,” Kelly said. “But again, [Wimbush is] going to have to be emotionally in the right place. He’s got the skills and the strategy necessary to keep those distractions out, and we’re pretty confident he’ll be able to do that.”
Crowd noise is often an overrated dynamic. In this instance, often means for 58 minutes of game time a week. It can then very quickly have a tangible effect on a college football game.