It is an age-old rule of college football: Nobody has played anybody.
As soon as a team is beaten, it is proof that squad was overrated. It is never evidence the victor was just a better team beating its scheduled opponents, the only objective at hand.
Alabama could be the next opponent and a diehard would insist, “The Tide hasn’t played anybody. Florida State isn’t any good this year. That’s the only win of note.” This would be ignoring the fact that the Seminoles have given up only 22.5 points per game this season despite playing Alabama and five ACC opponents in a season disjointed by Hurricane Irma.
Florida State is good this year, just not as good as years past. That was a high bar to start with. Only Nick Saban has found such sustained success in the last two decades, and let’s remember, he once described himself as not Attila the Hun. That’s a pretty easy bar to get underneath, in its own right.
Another mark difficult to replicate is any Heisman-winning campaign. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was going to be deemed a disappointment this year unless he threw for 4,000 yards, rushed for 2,000 and accounted for 60 total touchdowns. (His 2016 marks: 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing and 51 total scores.) Does any of that seem realistic? Of course not. Instead, Jackson is merely on pace for 4,027 passing yards, 1,411 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns.
Thus, while he may appear to be having a subpar season, it is only in comparison to his hardly-comparable 2016. When North Carolina State held him to 97 yards on 15 rushes (sacks adjusted) and an inefficient 55.3 completion percentage on his way to 354 passing yards, that was the Wolfpack defense limiting an offensive dynamo, not Jackson falling short again this season. (Jackson’s completion percentage on the year is 60.3.) He averaged 7.53 yards per attempt, more than a yard short of his season figure of 8.79.
When NC State scored 27 points against the Seminoles — none coming from short fields — that was the Wolfpack succeeding against one of the country’s better defenses, not a sign of Florida State’s demise.
These distinctions need to be made when discussing a conference as deep as the ACC appears to be this season. Reeling off four consecutive wins in that conference earns notice, hence why North Carolina State is up to No. 14 in the AP top-25.
Its rise further will hinge on that defense.
Can Notre Dame run against a genuinely good defense? It hasn’t yet.
Let’s use yards gained per carry as the metric for rushing offense and yards allowed per carry for rushing defense. By that measurement, the Irish have the second-best rushing attack in the country, gaining 7.06 yards per attempt, trailing only Stanford’s 7.74. North Carolina State has the No. 14 rush defense, giving up 3.04 yards per carry. (Note: For all rushing statistics in this section, they are not sacks adjusted. Unusual for this space, but making that alteration to the numbers would put the national figures out of context.)
Only one Wolfpack foe has ranked in the top half of the country as a rushing offense, Louisville at No. 8, gaining 6.13 yards per rush. How did the Cardinals, including Jackson, fare against NC State? They gained 116 yards on 29 carries, an average of 4.0 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, only two Notre Dame opponents rank in the top half of 129 FBS teams in rushing defense. You know the two. Georgia comes in at No. 7, giving up 2.82 yards per rush, and Michigan State is at No. 8 with 2.89 yards per carry. How did the Irish do on the ground in those two games? A combined 237 yards on 77 carries, an average of 3.08 yards per carry.
Clearly, the Wolfpack’s veteran-laden defensive front seven is more in line with the Bulldogs and the Spartans than it is with North Carolina (No. 98) and USC (No. 96). It has already limited one of the country’s most-potent rush attacks.
Notre Dame’s running game has improved since struggling against Georgia and Michigan State. The offensive line has developed as more of a unit. The running back stable has found a better semblance of health. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has become particularly apt at finding eight or 10 yards with his legs on any given passing play.
Has it improved enough to plow through North Carolina State’s defense? This answer may be the key to the remainder of the season. The next two Irish opponents also tilt more toward the top of the rushing defense spectrum than the bottom. (Wake Forest: No. 55, 4.14 yards per carry; Miami (FL): No. 57, 4.19 yards per carry.)
It has been awhile since Notre Dame won a close game. A close game often hinges on an offense’s ability to score at the end of a half. Can Wimbush run a successful two-minute drill?
In the first half of the season, the junior quarterback was asked to execute in short-order only once, the final minutes in the 20-19 loss to Georgia. Twice the Irish had the ball in the final minutes, yet the Bulldogs still came out ahead.
Wimbush had a chance to show his command of the offense at the end of the first half against the Trojans, but drops by junior tight end Alizé Mack and junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown cut short a drive at the USC 40-yard line.
Heading into that game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Wimbush had started to find success in practice in two-minute drills.
“We couldn’t even get a first down [in those drills] throughout the entire camp and into the first five weeks,” Kelly said. “We were three-and-out. We move the ball down the field now and that’s a huge accomplishment.”
Some of that progress has come at the expense of the Irish defense. Senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Wednesday he has noticed the differences.
“Those were the moments last year when we weren’t successful,” Tranquill said. “We lost a lot of games in the two-minute scenario at the end of the games.
“So it’s a big point of emphasis for us, and I think Brandon’s comfort in the pocket, his ability to deliver the ball downfield to the receivers just continues to grow. … When you have a quarterback who is as dynamic as he is to get out of the pocket and extend plays, but he continues to develop himself through the air, it becomes more of a challenge for the defense.”
It is not Wimbush’s fault Notre Dame has blown out its last five opponents and he has thus not needed to showcase this supposedly-developing skill. He may have that opportunity against North Carolina State, though.
Can the Irish defense stand strong for an entire game without the benefit of a forced turnover?
Notre Dame very well may take away the ball from the Wolfpack. It just seems unlikely. North Carolina State has lost three fumbles this entire season. There is no need to mention interceptions. Senior quarterback Ryan Finley hasn’t thrown any.
The Irish have forced 17 turnovers.
For this exercise, let’s grant the premise giving away just three turnovers in seven games is more impressive than forcing 17 in seven games. (This is debatable, hence the granting of the premise.) If removing those 17 possessions, Notre Dame has given up scoring opportunities (touchdowns or field goals attempted) 24 of 77 times. With an average of about 13 possessions per team per game, that rate would grant the Wolfpack four scoring opportunities this weekend.
Obviously, the Irish would rather take away the ball, but that might not happen against an offense this disciplined. In that case, the defense will need to hold its own 10 times or more.
To do that, who will keep senior Jaylen Samuels in check?
He isn’t quite a receiver. He is more than a running back. He seems far too talented to be a tight end. Samuels does a bit of everything.
This may be the assignment Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko envisioned when he first created the rover, his preferred schematic wrinkle. Tranquill can certainly match Samuels’ physicality, but Tranquill’s greatest lacking as a safety was his top-end speed. Samuels may test that.
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 228 pounds, Samuels may also be too much for Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford to handle. Crawford is listed at 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds.
This is why the Wolfpack features Samuels. No one defender can mitigate him. It is also why Elko has the safety/linebacker hybrid of the rover.