Things To Learn: Notre Dame will need the year’s best rushing performance vs. NC State

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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.)

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has yet to lead a successful in-game two-minute drill. Admittedly, that is primarily because the Irish have typically had such large leads this season. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

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.

Notre Dame senior linebacker Drue Tranquill could be the key piece to stopping North Carolina State’s offensive do-everything, Jaylen Samuels, this weekend when the No. 9 Irish host the No. 14 Wolfpack. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

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.

And In That Corner … The No. 14 North Carolina State Wolfpack and a vaunted run defense

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Due to some crossed signals, two sets of responses came in from North Carolina State beat reporters for this week’s rendition of a boxing analogy. They offered different styles in their answers, complementary in nature, so let’s present both. It is appropriate to have even further insights into the No. 14 Wolfpack than usual, as it may be — particularly in the eyes of this scribe — the toughest opponent remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule.

As an unnecessary reminder, the Irish host North Carolina State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

For now, let’s turn to Matt Carter of The Wolfpacker and Joe Giglio of Raleigh’s The News & Observer.

DF: Hey guys. I hope you enjoyed North Carolina State’s bye week. For our purposes, it is always nice when those come right in the middle of the season. How many years have you been on the Wolfpack beat now?
MC: I started in the summer of 2004 just in time to see Mario Williams break out as an NC State defensive end and am in my 14th season.

JG: I’ve been at the paper for 20 years but only on the State beat since 2008 for basketball and 2011 for football.

Speaking of that bye week, how did NC State spend it? To my knowledge, the team isn’t too banged up at this point, so there was not an impetus on getting guys healthy, at least not more than there always is in the middle of a football season.
MC: Dave Doeren stated during his weekly Monday press conference that a lot of time was spent going back to the basics and working on fundamentals. The Wolfpack has been fortunate from an injury standpoint but it still was able to use the time to get some bumps and bruises taken care of.

JG: They got a few days off last week and spent some time on fundamentals. You’re right, for the most part they have been healthy, except in the secondary. A little extra rest doesn’t hurt, though.

Through seven games, including an active six-game winning streak, Wolfpack senior quarterback Ryan Finley has thrown for 1,968 yards and 11 touchdowns without completing a single pass to the opposition. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s continue with a micro view, specifically senior quarterback Ryan Finley. The current buzz du jour around him is his complete lack of interceptions thrown, but he is certainly more than a game manager protecting the ball. His 69.4 completion percentage jumps off the page and averaging more than 280 passing yards a game is something Notre Dame’s secondary may fear. What about his game makes Finley so effective while also keeping him off the national radar?
MC: It’s a combination of factors. He graduated from Boise State in three years and is close to finishing his masters at NC State. Thus, he has a very good head on his shoulders. Secondly, he’s a smart guy who has been in this system for four years now. Wolfpack offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz was Finley’s offensive coordinator at Boise State and the two made the move to Raleigh together. Combining his intelligence and familiarity with the offense with an accurate touch throwing the football and a very calm and cool demeanor on and off the field, and you have a quarterback that just has not been easy to rattle this season.

JG: Finley makes quick reads and gets the ball out of his hands. He also has gotten better about taking more shots down the field. What has really helped him is the receivers making more plays on 50-50 passes.

Sticking with the offense, Irish coach Brian Kelly described senior H-back Jaylen Samuels as a “match-up nightmare.” I usually see him described as a tight end/wide receiver, but from the North Carolina State games I have seen, that hybrid description does not accurately explain his role in the offense. He has 191 yards and seven touchdowns rushing to go along with 453 yards and three touchdowns receiving, after all. How does the offense showcase, if not even rely on, Samuels?

Senior Jaylen Samuels lines up just about everywhere for North Carolina State. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

MC: The goal is to put Samuels in advantageous matchups, and because he is so versatile it can really strain a defense. He has the ability to exploit matchups at multiple spots on the field. More times than not you will probably see Samuels in the slot, but he will also line up in the backfield, occasionally put his hand in the dirt as a traditional tight end and even take a few snaps out wide. This year it seems to me more than anything he has emerged as one of the offense’s go-to guys on third downs and in the red zone in particular.

JG: He’s basically a slot receiver they also use as a short-yardage running back. They’ve started using him more and more in the red zone at running back. He’s a little bigger than junior Nyheim Hines, which helps in short-yardage situations.

He leads the team targets (63) and catches (54). Those are mostly shorter, intermediate routes. There are some specific plays designed for him — on jet sweeps and shovel pass — but for the most part, he’s a glorified slot receiver.

In some respects, Finley and Samuels may have excelled without great notice because the Wolfpack defense gets the headlines, specifically its front seven. It hasn’t seen an offensive line like Notre Dame’s yet, though. Then again, the Irish struggled against Georgia’s defensive front, but the o-line has pretty clearly improved since the second week of the season. In something of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, how do you see the trenches being won?
MC: My suspicion is that you will see a middle ground met. I would not suspect Notre Dame is going to rush for 300 yards against NC State. Nor do I think it’s realistic for the Wolfpack to shut down the Irish like Georgia did, which as you pointed out was back in week two.

To me, the key is which team is winning in the fourth quarter when it’s quite possible the game is on the line. NC State’s defense, at times, has been far better in the second half of games this year than the first.

JG: I expect Notre Dame’s offense to do what a lot of teams have done against State: Get rid of the ball quickly and not give senior defensive end Bradley Chubb a chance to get after the quarterback. State’s run defense is pretty stout, with B.J. Hill and Justin Jones in the middle.

A few teams have found success through the air despite that pass rush. Specifically, Marshall threw for 350 yards, Syracuse 385 and Louisville 354. The Irish passing attack has been, shall we say, lacking this season, but could that be an opportunity to exploit a Wolfpack weakness?
MC: There have been teams that have literally abandoned the run to throw the ball against NC State. Those three games are very good examples of that. Marshall’s leading rusher carried eight times. Sixteen of Syracuse’s 30 rushes were by the quarterback. Louisville took a very similar approach. That is partly a tribute to the respect of the Wolfpack rush defense, but also the fact that teams know they can throw the football effectively against NC State if given time.

The Wolfpack has faced a lot of offenses using max protection to block the front to exploit matchups against the secondary. The question is will a fully healthy secondary make a difference in the second half of the year. By the end of the South Carolina game through week five against Syracuse, NC State was down two starters and a top reserve. The two starters have since returned and were rotating snaps the last three games while easing back in.

JG: The shots will be there. State’s a bend-don’t-break defense. Marshall receiver Tyre Brady had a big game by getting into man routes with corner Johnathan Alston, a converted receiver. I would expect Notre Dame to try to take some shots down the field with junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

Switching to a macro view, entering the season some considered North Carolina State an ACC dark horse, but with the defending national champion in the conference, not very many had that outlook. What were, and what are, the realistic expectations closer to the program? You certainly know more than those viewing from 35,000 feet.
MC: There was not much doubt that this was Dave Doeren’s best team at NC State, and it fit a lot of the criteria of a team that should have a really good season. It returned a ton of experience from a squad that went 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less (including a win against Notre Dame which had similar struggles in close games). If you ask those around the program, NC State felt, with justification, it should have won all four of those games it lost.

So it was a competitive team returning all the key players. But the expectations were also tampered for two reasons. One, the perception around NC State athletics, especially with its basketball team, is it historically underachieves when it should be good. Secondly, the schedule was going to be difficult, especially since the ACC’s Atlantic is considered far superior to the Coastal.

Perhaps fortunately for NC State, a couple of those Atlantic heavyweights — Clemson and Louisville — are struggling.

JG: The Wolfpack has won at least 10 games only once in school history. That’s it. Most people here thought this team could win 10 games. The playoff talk was always kind of looked at like a lark with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville being the main obstacles.

Those expectations may have changed after wins over Florida State and Louisville. The nature of college football now devalues those wins a bit, but whether or not that is valid — and it is likely somewhere in between — those wins gave the Wolfpack season quite a bit of momentum from afar. How has that been felt around the program?
MC: If anything, it got NC State over that hump. Last year, NC State dropped an interception that probably would have sealed a 20-17 win over Florida State at home and opened the door for the ‘Noles to win it on a late touchdown, 24-20. The team needed a success to point to as proof its direction and approach were the right way. It got those wins under challenging setups.

As you noted, both FSU and Louisville may not have been what they were expected to be, but Florida State essentially had three weeks to prepare for NC State due to Hurricane Irma altering its schedule, and Louisville had played a couple of cupcakes leading into NC State while the Wolfpack had to play Syracuse the previous Saturday before playing the Cards on a short week.

JG: Yeah, those three teams have dominated the Atlantic Division and Dave Doeren had been 0-11 against those three teams going into this season. Any win over the group would have been considered a bonus. To possibly sweep those three? I don’t think anyone reasonably predicted that would be possible.

What have I missed? I didn’t intentionally leave out junior running back Nyheim Hines. I suppose I just see Finley’s arm as a bigger threat to the Irish defense. Is that foolish of me?

North Carolina State junior running back Nyheim Hines has rushed for 648 yards and six touchdowns this season with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

MC: Hines is one of the country’s leaders in all-purpose yards and has gotten some midseason All-American mention. Entering the bye he led all ACC running backs in rushing yards and was on pace for more than 1,000 yards. He singlehandedly kept NC State in the game during the first half against Pittsburgh when the Wolfpack looked like it was sleepwalking a little following that win over Louisville. In the second half, NC State asserted itself and outscored the Panthers 21-3.

The most underrated aspect of NC State this season, to me, is the offensive line. In four ACC games, Finley has not been sacked yet. Pitt did not even register a quarterback hurry in the last game. Both senior right guard Tony Adams and junior right tackle Will Richardson could be All-ACC candidates.

On the flipside, NC State’s special teams was sure to be a focal point in the bye because both placekicking and kick coverage have been a sore spot.

JG: Hines is a home-run hitter. He can be quiet at times and then he’ll pop one. The difference in the Louisville game was the receivers and the plays they were able to make down field.

I was shocked to see Notre Dame favored by more than a touchdown. How do you see Saturday afternoon going?
MC: It’s hard to ignore how impressive Notre Dame looked against USC. Dominating any opponent from a Power Five conference in that fashion is the sign of a really, really good football team. I get the feeling this is a game of two teams headed for special seasons on a collision course with each other. Typically in those types of settings, I might prefer the home squad.

I do think it will be a close, competitive game that could be decided by a late touchdown.

JG: I’ve got N.C. State winning 20-18. A play on Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia and 18 being double its point total in the previous two games against N.C. State (six in 2002 and three last year).

Questions for the Week (Some, Notre Dame already answered)

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The rough draft of this weekly segment is usually written Sunday, either in the late morning or early afternoon. When saying “rough draft,” what should really be said is, “hardly legible scribbles on a legal pad consisting of names followed by nouns with no verbs anywhere to be seen.”

Some examples: “Cam Smith? Another ND TD?” or “Stepherson up the depth chart?” or “Dexter? Ankles, man.”

Then those haphazard pieces typically become more coherent thoughts either very early Monday morning (2 a.m.) or early Monday morning (9 a.m.). This week, however, Irish coach Brian Kelly answered most of the intended questions before they could even be asked in this space. There no longer seemed a rush. Thus, this delay. But now, as something of a mid-week update, let’s rehash.

Will senior linebacker Greer Martini actually be able to play only two weeks after arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight tear in his meniscus?
Yes. Kelly has a reputation for projecting quicker recoveries than reality allows, and, instinctively, that seemed the case when he said Sunday that Martini was cleared to practice this week. Yet, Martini apparently did Tuesday.

“I’m full go,” Martini said Wednesday. “I had practices all yesterday, didn’t take any reps off, and I’m feeling really good.”

Martini’s return does not have the dire feel to it like it did before the rout of USC. Junior Te’von Coney could not have acquitted himself better in Martini’s absence. Nonetheless, the return of the senior captain allows Notre Dame to trot out three talented linebackers — those two along with senior Nyles Morgan — to fill two spots, meaning fresh legs should not be a rare commodity.

“Whether it’s Te’von or I or Nyles starting, we all kind of have had enough reps that we feel like we’re all starters,” Martini said.

What about junior running back Dexter Williams and his sprained ankle?
After saying the Irish coaches made a conscious decision not to play Williams until he is 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury, Kelly either created some wiggle room in that regard Wednesday or returned to those optimistic recovery pronouncements mentioned earlier.

“Dexter looked good,” Kelly said on an ACC conference call, referring to Tuesday’s practice. “I think to say he’s 100 percent, I wouldn’t. I would say he could impact the game for us. He’s ready to play on Saturday.”

With or without Williams, Notre Dame will have a difficult time running against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack gives up a mere 3.04 yards per carry, No. 14 in the country. For context, Georgia ranks No. 7 in allowing 2.82 yards per rush and Michigan State comes in at No. 8 at 2.89 yards.

North Carolina State’s rush defense is so stout, opponents have tried to avoid challenging it. In getting to a 6-1 record, the Wolfpack have truly blown out only one opponent — a 49-16 win over FCS-level Furman. Opponents have not had to lean entirely on the passing game in fruitless attempts to come from behind, yet they have rushed only 210 times against NC State, an even 30 carries per game. The Irish, meanwhile, average 45 rushes each week.

Will sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson move up the depth chart now that he is fully-integrated back into Notre Dame’s offense?

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson caught three passes for 58 yards and a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. He also took two rushes for 24 yards. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Officially, no. Stepherson did not crack the two-deep released this week, but that two-deep hardly changes midseason. Let’s expect Stepherson to be one of the top three Irish receivers moving forward, along with junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.

“What I liked the most was [Stepherson’s] energy and his assignments, getting all of his assignments correct,” Kelly said Sunday. “There was just an overall focus in a terms of getting lined up, having the right energy, really being locked into the game. A maturity that he continues to work on playing here at Notre Dame.”

Whatever the reason Stepherson spent the first four weeks of the year on the sideline, he certainly sounds ready to play now. Oh, and he’s pretty good at the football thing, too.

“It’s pretty easy to point out his athletic skills,” Kelly said. “We’ve never questioned those.

“… You’re going to see more and more of him on the field.”

With more of Stepherson on the field, that will inevitably mean less of fifth-year receiver and Arizona State-transfer Cam Smith, who missed the game against the Trojans due to a hamstring strain.

Notre Dame is now 9-1 under Kelly after a bye week. What about the week after that?
The Irish are 6-3 in such a situation, with two of the losses coming after a second bye week in one season and the third coming last season against Navy.

This may seem a narrow grouping to single out, but it is intended to show whether the bye week’s rest and focus carry over to a second game. For the most part, it appears a typical bye week’s does.

How many hurricane references will this week hold?
Too many. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren got the first chance to reflect on his victory over Notre Dame a year ago, played in a literal hurricane.

Kelly offered a similar view of that contest.

“We didn’t even look at the film,” he said Tuesday. “It wasn’t even part of our breakdown because it really didn’t give us anything. It was a poorly-designed game plan by me. There was nothing that we really wanted to go back and look at.”

Notre Dame doesn’t ‘have anything else to play for’ but a Playoff bid

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College football employs a four-team playoff. In that system, a championship team plays two playoff games, a semifinal and a final. Notre Dame, however, is looking at a 12-game playoff this year. As Irish coach Brian Kelly explained Tuesday, every Notre Dame game since the 20-19 loss to Georgia in the season’s second week has had the significance of a playoff game.

“Our guys don’t know it any other way,” Kelly said. “Everybody else seems to have caught on with this idea that Notre Dame is playing for a Playoff spot. We don’t have anything else to play for. That’s what we play for. We’re an independent football team, and our mission is to graduate all of our players and play for a national championship. That’s all we have.

“It’s not really any different than it was yesterday or the day before or last week.”

Kelly’s point is valid. Even after suffering a 49-14 drubbing at the hands of the Irish, USC returns to the West Coast in pole position to win the Pac 12 and play in a playoff-eligible bowl. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, could fall against Florida this week or South Carolina next week and still have a clear path to the SEC title game. A win there would likely give Georgia a push into the Playoff even with a loss.

Those teams have a margin of error remaining. Notre Dame does not.

Rushing past rushing expectations
Kelly had an idea the Irish would rely on the running game this season, even if that is contradictory to most of his career. After averaging 163.3 rushing yards per game in 2016, he hoped to increase that by more than 50 percent.

“If we could average 250 [yards], we were going to be really effective running the ball,” he said.

Suffice it to say, Notre Dame has met that mark, currently averaging 317.9 yards per game. In five of seven games, the Irish have surpassed that 250-yard threshold, obviously highlighted by the obscene 515 rushing yards in the 49-20 victory at Boston College.

“A lot of that has to do with collectively nine of the 11 guys blocking at the highest level,” Kelly said, the two exceptions being the quarterback and the running back with the ball. “A commitment form everybody, receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, and then the talent of [junior running back Josh Adams] in terms of his ability to turn pedestrian plays into big-chunk plays.”

Kelly also complemented Adams’ ability to block for junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush when Wimbush runs with the ball. An Adams block sprung Wimbush for a touchdown against the Trojans, showing the embracing of physical play extends to every offensive player.

“The mentality of our football team has been crafted over the year of this physicality and running the football, where last year was about throwing the football,” Kelly said. “These guys really take so much pride.”

A rotating defense is a stronger defense
Including punts, a missed field goal and a play officially lost to a penalty but having occurred in the real world nonetheless, USC had 34 offensive snaps in the first half Saturday. Nine Notre Dame defensive linemen partook in at least 10 of those snaps, including freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

When USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold bobbled the first snap he received Saturday, Notre Dame defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (99) and Daelin Hayes were quick to apply pressure. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Getting more guys onto the field does more than keep players fresher, Kelly said.

“We felt like last year when we started to get into a deeper rotation with players, we saw how the culture began to change within our defense in terms of camaraderie, in terms of closeness, in terms of guys being into what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “… [Defensive line coach] Mike Elston has done a great job of developing those guys, so now they’re at a point where they can really come in and impact the football game.”

They racked up two sacks and a quarterback hurry in the opening half, plus a sack erased by that aforementioned penalty, though it played a key part in the game. (See Saturday’s “Overlooked Point of the Game.”)

Safety communication
For the second consecutive week, Notre Dame will face a viable passing threat. North Carolina State senior quarterback Ryan Finley, however, has had a consistent and mistake-free season, especially if compared to USC junior Sam Darnold. Finley has yet to throw an interception and has been held to fewer than 200 yards only once, when he threw for 198 at Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

Heading into the matchup with Darnold and the Trojans, Kelly said there was no way to protect the Irish safeties. They would have to hold their own. For the most part, they did, but that performance may not be enough moving forward.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Kelly said. “We have to communicate better on the back end of the defense. That’s an area that has got to get better for us defensively. There were some times there that communication was an issue.”

Notre Dame’s Opponents: BC & Mich. St. rise while Miami continues its streak of well-timed luck

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For a two-letter word, if could not have much more in the way of implications than it does. If Notre Dame wins the rest of its games, it will have one of the country’s best résumés and be well-situated for a bid to the College Football Playoff. If the Irish finish 11-1, that will not only include wins over a momentum-gaining Michigan State and a still-in-control-of-the-Pac-12 USC, but also victories over two of the ACC’s top contenders. If Notre Dame runs the table, even its win over Boston College may hold value by season’s end.

If.

Including the Eagles’ upset at Virginia this weekend, Irish foes went a combined 4-4, not including the Trojans’ loss in South Bend. That .500 mark should be surpassed this weekend, with oddsmakers expecting a 5-3 result.

Temple (3-5): Apparently, junior quarterback Logan Marchi injured his lower right leg two weeks ago at Connecticut, leading to senior Frank Nutile getting the start in the Owls’ 31-28 overtime loss at Army. Nutile finished 20-of-29 for 290 yards and a touchdown. In his seven games, Marchi had completed 55.5 percent of his passes for 1,658 yards and nine touchdowns along with eight interceptions.

A quarterback controversy could be brewing for first-year head coach Geoff Collins. He will get a week off to consider the possibilities at hand.

Georgia (7-0): The Bulldogs enjoyed a bye week, preparing for as crucial a two-week stretch as they will face in the regular season. With Florida this week and South Carolina next, Georgia has a chance to dispatch the last two remote SEC East threats. Both the Gators and the Gamecocks already have two conference losses, so as long as the Bulldogs beat one of them, they should be fine from an SEC viewpoint.

That can begin in Jacksonville against Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). As two-touchdown favorites with a combined point total over/under of 44, Georgia will be looking to prevail 29-15. Only two teams have scored that many points against the Bulldogs — Missouri in a blowout and Notre Dame with its 19 — so expect the Gators to struggle to reach even that mark.

The week after upsetting Louisville on the road 45-42, Boston College routed Virginia 41-10, led by freshman quarterback Anthony Brown‘s three touchdowns. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Boston College (4-4): Much like the Irish rout of USC, the Eagles 41-10 demolishing of Virginia was entirely unexpected. A close game was certainly foreseeable, even predicted in this space a week ago, and a win was within fathoming, but handing the Cavaliers their first conference loss in such decisive fashion came out of nowhere. Suddenly Boston College head coach Steve Addazio should be feeling much better about his job prospects.

Freshman quarterback Anthony Brown led the way with a dazzling performance. Brown finished 19-of-24 passing for 275 yards and three touchdowns.

The question now is simple: Can the Eagles keep this roll going? They have played superior opponents closely all season, building to this win. Meanwhile, Florida State has universally struggled. Thus, Boston College is only a 2.5-point underdog with the Seminoles visiting Friday night (9 p.m. ET; ESPN). An over/under of 45 suggests a 24-21 contest to watch on mute at your local destination of choice this Halloween weekend.

Michigan State (6-1): The Spartans were tested by Indiana, but they kept their composure and discipline to hold on for a 17-9 win which was closer than the score sounds. The Hoosiers quite literally conceded an 18-yard touchdown run from Michigan State running back LJ Scott with fewer than two minutes remaining in an attempt to get back the ball and stage a dramatic comeback. In certain corners, that score mattered a great deal. To the Spartans, it was simply the second fourth-quarter trip to the end zone in their come-from-behind victory.

Another even matchup is expected for Michigan State, a one-point favorite in a trip to Northwestern (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPN). A 21-20 final sounds a bit high-scoring for a typical Big Ten affair.

Miami (OH) (3-5): Thanks to an unlikely source, the RedHawks halted their slide with a 24-14 win against Buffalo. Senior quarterback Gus Ragland remains sidelined, leading to junior Billy Bahl getting the start. Bahl managed only 177 yards on 13-of-20 passing. Senior running back Kenny Young picked up the slack, delivering career highs with 125 rushing yards and two touchdowns on a career-high-tying 19 carries.

Ragland has some time to get healthy with Miami enjoying a shortened bye this week. It will take the field next Tuesday on the road against Ohio.

North Carolina (1-7): Injuries are one thing, but the Tar Heels staircase is spiraling downward much further than that. Virginia Tech led 52-0 entering the fourth quarter against North Carolina, cruising to a 59-7 victory.

Miami (FL) will look to add on to that misery. The Tar Heels host the Hurricanes, yet are nearly three-touchdown underdogs (20.5 points) with an over/under of only 50 points. The only issue with a 35-14 conclusion is it is hard to imagine North Carolina reaching the end zone twice.

USC (6-2): The Trojans fell to Notre Dame 49-14 this weekend. If reading this far into this piece in this space, you probably already knew that.

USC still holds the cards in the Pac 12, though. Beginning this week, those cards will be at risk. The Trojans head to Arizona State for #Pac12AfterDark (10:45 p.m. ET, ESPN) favored by only three points with an over/under of 57. The winner of this tilt will have control of the Pac 12 South Division. It is not hard to envision USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold lucking into a dramatic 30-27 victory.

North Carolina State (6-1): Following a bye, the Wolfpack face Notre Dame as a 7.5-point underdog (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC). A 59.5 over/under creates a theoretical 34-26 final. In that scenario, North Carolina State would be the first team to break 20 points against the Irish this season. Of course, some of that scoring could come from the Wolfpack’s excellent defense, led by senior defensive end Bradley Chubb and his 6.5 sacks.

Wake Forest (4-3): It’s the triple-option. What are you going to do?

Georgia Tech ran for 427 yards on 66 carries against the Demon Deacons, controlling the ball for two seconds shy of 36 minutes and winning 38-24.

Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson plays anything but a traditional football style, but Wake Forest’s defense is certainly more accustomed to that type of assignment than it is the triple-option. Jackson and Louisville take to the road as three-point favorites, looking at a 33-30 final. (12:20 p.m. ET, ACC Digital Network.) Considering the staunchness of the Demon Deacon defense — Georgia Tech was the first team to break 28 points against it; Florida State managed only 26 and Clemson that 28 — do not expect the scoreboard to work quite that hard.

Miami’s record remains unblemished, but only barely. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Miami (FL) (6-0): The good news: For the third week in a row, a score in the final minutes proved crucial for the Hurricanes, using a touchdown with fewer than three minutes remaining to bump a one-point cushion up to eight in a 27-19 win over Syracuse.

The obvious news: A win is a win is a [insert four-beat pause] win.

The forward-looking news: Before Miami welcomes Notre Dame, it hosts Virginia Tech next weekend. That increasingly looks like it could, perhaps should, be the Hurricanes’ first loss of the season.

Between now and then, Miami hosts North Carolina. That aforementioned 35-14 theoretical margin will boost the Hurricanes’ public appearance after this string of close calls, but that will be a façade more than anything else. A prediction of a prediction: This space will advise Hokie consideration in a week.

Navy (5-2): The Midshipmen never led in a 31-21 loss to Central Florida. Three turnovers crippled Navy’s chances at an upset. For that matter, the Midshipmen rushed for only 248 yards on 59 attempts, the lowest ground output for Navy since week two when it managed a 23-21 win vs. Tulane.

This week, a bye.

Stanford (5-2): The Cardinal follow a bye week with the next-best thing, a trip to Oregon State on Thursday night, creating another pseudo-bye the following week. Favored by 23 against the Beavers (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) with a 59.5-point over/under, a 41-18 result feels appropriate only because Stanford will have little reason to do more damage. Let’s place Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love on 300-yard watch this week. That might make the game interesting into the second half. He has reached that mark once this season, 301 against Arizona State on Sept. 30 in a 34-24 win.